In this podcast, Paul Kelley from Satterley & Kelley talks with John Maher about asbestos exposure at ARMCO or AK Steel. He explains which workers may have been exposed to asbestos at this facility between the 1960s and 1990s, and he talks about their options for getting financial compensation.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Paul Kelly. Paul is a partner with the Kentucky Personal Injury Law Firm, Satterley & Kelley, which has over 30 years of collective experience in handling cases involving mesothelioma and asbestos exposure. Today we’re talking about mesothelioma cases at ARMCO AK Steel. Welcome, Paul.
Paul Kelley: Hey, John. How are you doing today?
John: Good, thanks. So Paul, what is ARMCO? A-R-M-C-O, also known as AK Steel.
Paul: ARMCO was a steel facility. They, of course, have many facilities throughout the country, or at least one time they did. We’re here to talk about a particular facility that was located in Ashland, Kentucky. It made a variety of steel products that were used in manufacturing plants throughout the southeastern and northeastern United States.
John: Okay. How was ARMCO related to asbestos and mesothelioma cancer cases?
Paul: Quite a few ways, actually. Steel plants historically have been known as some of the most prevalent sources of asbestos exposure in the United States. Steel plants, as you can imagine, are very hot facilities. I mean, they’re running numerous types of furnaces, ovens, in order to produce steel. It’s a hot process and they combine a lot of different iron and raw steel products into furnaces and ovens, and those ovens exceed thousands of degrees. Asbestos is something that’s affiliated with the equipment. It’s affiliated with the pipes that are running through the plant, and it’s typically used as an insulation product.
Some of the things that we’ve seen are something called the coke ovens. The coke ovens were used, coal was placed into them, and heated. It’s a complicated process; we won’t get into it too much. But essentially the coal was combined with other ingredients, and it forms something called coke.
Coke was then used to heat the blast furnaces. The blast furnaces essentially melted or smelted iron ore and raw materials into a form that then can be used to send it down the line into other types of furnaces called open hearth furnaces or basic oxygen furnaces. Those furnaces essentially made liquid steel from hot metal.
In all those ovens, the coke ovens, the blast furnaces, the open-heart furnaces, and ,the basic oxygen furnaces, all of them contain what we call refractory material, firebrick and other insulating products that contain asbestos. And again, the purpose for that refractory material is because these furnaces all reach thousands of degrees and heat. In order to maintain the integrity of the furnace, in order to produce the final product in a way that is of high quality, they need to make sure that the furnaces are in tip top shape all the time. And so this refractory material assisted in that process.
What we’ve seen from a lot of folks is they were exposed during the initial installation of all those materials. We’re talking firebrick and we’re talking insulation and all those things produced a high level of dust. That firebrick and refractory material doesn’t last forever. So typically once a year or once every couple years, they would have to go through and they would do what were called complete tear downs of the refractory material from all these pieces of equipment. And that, of course, would produce a lot of asbestos dust from tearing out those materials and they had to scrape it out. They had to blast it out. I mean, any way that they could get it out, they did. And then, of course, they put the new materials in. All of those pieces of equipment were all insulated with the best sustaining materials, and the people that installed it and took it out were exposed heavily.
Also, people who operated those pieces of equipment, frequently there would be vibrations throughout the facilities and would cause dust from these ovens and furnaces to be emitted from the equipment. Anybody within the breathing zone of the equipment during that process would get asbestos exposure. So there were those types of equipment.
Then there were boilers and turbines that were located in the facility. They were frequently used to heat the plant. They were typically used to energize some of the equipment. Boilers and turbines historically, whether it’s at a big powerhouse or whether it’s at a place like ARMCO in Ashland, they were all insulated with asbestos-containing materials. It’s usually a blanket insulation. Once again, there would be firebrick and refractory and boiler makers and mechanics, and maintenance folks would install and remove those materials on a fairly routine basis, and they would get exposed during that process.
There were, of course, steam pipes and steam lines running throughout the facility, both steam lines that were there to help heat the facility. There were chemical processes that ran through those lines. All those things produced an extreme amount of heat. And so in order to both protect the integrity of the lines themselves, and also to make sure that people didn’t get burned from touching any of that equipment, they were insulated with asbestos for many, many years.
Pipe fitters and the steam fitters and anybody that performed any maintenance whatsoever on any of those steam lines at any point in time would more than likely be exposed to asbestos from removing and installing new asbestos insulation, and of course the insulators as well.
Another type of exposure was to motors. These are large motors. These kinds of motors were utilized typically to operate cranes, giant cranes that had to move steel about in the facility. All those motors contained brakes and gaskets that contained asbestos at one time or another, probably through the mid ’80s. All of the maintenance folks, electricians, anyone that worked on those motors and actually worked on the internal components of the motors, they’re going to be exposed to asbestos at one time or another.
There was a lot of other equipment in the facility that contain asbestos, but the main ones that I think we’ve seen the most of during our career litigating asbestos cases are the types of products that I’ve just mentioned.
John: Okay. Does the ARMCO facilities still operate? And if not, when would those exposures have typically happened, or when was there asbestos in the plant?
Paul: The ARMCO facility, eventually it was bought by Kawasaki and it was renamed AK Steel. That occurred in about 1995, ’96 timeframe. Unfortunately, they closed the whole facility down in 2019, so it’s no longer in business anymore. But to answer your question as when the exposures occurred, more than likely the prime time frame would’ve been prior to 1990, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s when new asbestos products were still being used.
As we got away from the mid 1970s and into the ’80s, the typical type of exposure would be to old things that were still there. So for example, a steam line that had asbestos installed in the 1960s, it could very well still be there in the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s. Frequently they would just wrap it, and as long as nobody’s touching it, it was fine. The problem is that if a pipe fitter or a maintenance employee had to get into one of those pipes because there was a problem, then they would remove the insulation from the pipe and there would be a new exposure there.
But for the most part, the refractory material, the new insulation, the motors, the gaskets, all these ovens and furnaces we’ve talked about, they probably were not using brand new asbestos containing materials past 1980. So it would only be exposure to old things after that that was most prevalent after 1980.
John: Okay. So if you were an employee at ARMCO and you have lung cancer or asbestosis or mesothelioma, what should you do?
Paul: Well, the most important thing is to get your medical treatment under control. Unfortunately, mesothelioma in particular is a devastating diagnosis. The life expectancy for people who are diagnosed with that disease on average is six to 18 months. The good news is the treatment’s a lot better today than it was 20, 25 years ago. People have a lot more options, but it’s certainly important to get your medical care under control.
It’s also important to advise your physicians and medical providers of the potential exposures that you think you had. It may not have an impact on how they treat you, but it may have an impact on getting to the diagnosis, and in some circumstances it could have an impact on treatment.
Certainly from my standpoint, it is absolutely critical that you seek the advice of an attorney immediately. We have litigated several cases out of this particular plant. We are familiar with the defendants and suppliers of asbestos of that facility. Time is of the essence, and it’s important to get a good understanding of what your rights are and then you can make a decision as to whether you want to pursue a lawsuit against any of the suppliers or manufacturers of products that more than likely you were exposed to at that plant.
John: Right. So you mentioned filing a lawsuit against the suppliers of the asbestos products. Explain why you need to do that, and why an employee at ARMCO can’t just sue ARMCO itself or AK Steel.
Paul: Under Kentucky law and in most states, people are generally precluded from filing a lawsuit, a personal injury claim against their own employer. They have to file claims pursuant to the Kentucky Workers’ Compensation Act against their employers themselves. Every case is unique, and so sometimes it’s not possible to even file a workers’ compensation claim against your employer. Sometimes it’s not desirable or feasible to do so. But in most instances, a lawsuit cannot be filed against your employer.
The suppliers of asbestos products, they’re in a different category. Those suppliers enjoy no such protection. The suppliers all had a responsibility to provide a safe product. And if they could not provide a safe product, to warn about the inherent dangers of their product. In a place like ARMCO, there were dozens, if not hundreds of suppliers of asbestos containing products.
My experience in litigating cases from that facility and facilities like it is they didn’t provide warnings, they didn’t provide information. People who utilized these products or were exposed to these products day in and day out had absolutely no clue that the products contain asbestos, much less that the asbestos was hazardous. It’s critical to get an understanding as to when the exposures occurred, that has a big impact; how long those exposures occurred.
Even if you don’t know who manufactured the turbines, or who manufactured the coke ovens, or who provided the insulation for those coke ovens, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a case. We have all that information. We have litigated and put that information together over a long period of time in working on these kinds of cases. So don’t be discouraged by the fact that you don’t know who supplied any particular product at any particular time. That’s not the standard under the law.
The standard is, did you work there? Were you exposed to something? Did it cause you harm? We have the ability to put that information together and make that case on your behalf, if in fact you’ve suffered an exposure there. But it’s going to be against the manufacturers and suppliers, and more than likely is not going to be against the employer.
John:Okay. Talk a little bit about the statute of limitations in Kentucky and how that affects the ability of a worker to file a case against ARMCO’s suppliers.
Paul: Sure. Under Kentucky law, we have one year from the date that we know or should know we have an injury, and one year from when we know or should know the cause of that injury. So that’s not necessarily the date of diagnosis. However, to be safe, we always encourage folks to act as quickly as possible. If somebody came to me and we decided that it was a case that we could work on, we would file that case as soon as humanly possible, and we would never wait anywhere close to a year to get a case filed.
However, you do have a year. We typically encourage folks and go with the rule of thumb, go with the date of the diagnosis. However, there are many circumstances where people just don’t have any clue as to where they were exposed, and they have no clue how they were exposed. It does take a little bit of time. So the law gives us some ability to figure that out before our statute of limitations starts run.
John: All right. Well, that’s really great information, Paul. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Paul: Thanks, John.
John: For more information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure, visit the law firm of Satterley and Kelley at SatterleyLaw.com, or call 855-385-9532.